A Public Farewell
"From one old engineer to another: thanks, mate."
Armstrong congratulates James
Doohan during the actor's final appearance at a Star Trek convention
in August, 2004. Armstrong, the keynote speaker at a banquet in Doohan's
honor, was an engineer prior to his NASA career. Doohan died on July 20,
2005, the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Armstrong's
first walk on the moon.
(Photo from Soul
of Star Trek)
Doohan's final public appearance as Montogomery Scott, I thought I'd
rerun some stuff from a May 1999 KGB Report...
Beaming In Scotty: NBC, the television network responsible for
the popularization of color television in the 60s and 70s and stereo
television in the 80s, introduced the first regularly-scheduled high
definition television program last month, The Tonight Show with Jay
Leno. Commercial viability of the digital format notwithstanding,
the network and Leno deserve credit for launching the new service with
an appearance by actor Jimmy Doohan, portraying his Star Trek
character Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. In an inspired bit during the
opening monologue, Doohan's Scotty struggled with "overloaded high
definition generators" in the bowels of NBC engineering, and solved the
problem by "diverting power from one of the many NBC Datelines."
We suspect there may be a closet Trekkie on Mr. Leno's staff- aside from
the comedy angle, it's somehow appropriate and a little bit touching
that Scotty would play a role in the first NBC HDTV broadcast. NBC, of
course, originally aired Star Trek from 1966 to 1968. Doohan and
the late Greg Morris, who played technical wizard Barney Collier on CBS' Mission:
Impossible, are responsible for launching thousands of geekish
techno-nerds into careers in computing. Imagine how much better we'd get
along with technology today if Scotty and Barney ran Microsoft and
My Scotty Story: I heard Doohan tell this at a convention. In
gratitude to NASA for its assistance on the Trek movies, Paramount sends
series stars to various space agency sites for publicity junkets. One
problem with being Scotty, Doohan noted, is that real technicians think
of him as the ultimate expert. During a tour of the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, an engineer was showing the actor a radio receiver that
processed data transmitted from a deep space probe. "We've noticed a
frequency drift that seems to be induced by thermal variations on the
antenna emitter circuit, and we haven't been able to devise a
compensation schema. Do you think a dynamic beat frequency oscillator
would be effective?" Aware that scores of technicians were breathlessly
awaiting his diagnosis, and not wanting to embarrass the engineer who
posed the question, Doohan smiled, cocked his head, and said in his
lilting Scottish brogue, "Ah, laddie... sorry, but I dinna ken a thing
Requiem for a Fictional Scotsman
Other kids worshipped baseball players. My hero was a fictional Scottish
engineer from the 23rd century.
Before the terms geek and nerd entered the vernacular, we were called
brains, or, more cruelly, weirdos. We built Heathkits, disassembled
televisions and tape recorders, and bribed the librarian to give us
first crack at the new issues of Popular Science and Popular
Electronics, usually by changing the ribbon or switching the golf
balls on her newfangled IBM Selectric.
The normal people left us alone until they needed their eight tracks
fixed, or someone to set up the projector for health class, or install a
new ink pad on the mimeograph machine. Task completed, we would be
summarily dismissed with a curt thank you. We'd return to the backstage
of the auditorium/gym, the traditional sanctuary of the oddballs on the
Scotty was our hero because he was one of us. Instead of the backstage,
he was buried in the bowels of the Enterprise's engineering
section, which wasn't even in the main part of the ship. There he ruled,
serenely, totally in control, obtaining supreme satisfaction in the
knowledge that while the idiots on the bridge were supposedly in charge, he
was the one who made possible their continued existence.
And then there was the Spock business. We Scotty aficionados resented
the Vulcan science officer. In the first place, the whole "I'm totally
in control and have no emotions" thing was patently dishonest. He was
like the guy on the AV squad who discovered girls over the summer and
was suddenly Mr. Cool. Yeah, right. When his girlfriend dumped him for
the football team towel manager (quasi-athlete is still better than
certified nerd), he nearly fried the pre-amp in the PA system by
replacing the 1 megohm resistor in the main power supply with a 1K unit
while in his emotionally distraught state.
Spock was our high school principal, a pointy eared deus ex machina
who appeared and broke the rules of the game. I recall spending days
overhauling the motor and drive assembly of an old Wollensak
reel-to-reel mono tape recorder, finally getting its wow and flutter
back within specs. Rather than praise my efforts, the principal said
"Oh, we'll just buy a new one." Buy a new one? The possibility had never
even been presented to me! This is the parsimonious wretch who only two
weeks ago made me use rubber bands to replace the capstan drive belt to
save 50 cents! No wonder Scotty drank himself into oblivion when he was
The Star Trek writers used Spock and abused Scotty in the same
manner. They placed the Enterprise in some ludicrous situation
which had no resolution, then sent Spock down into engineering to order
Scotty to perform some action totally in violation of Trek's
already delusional laws of physics.
Until the arrival of Bill Gates, Scotty was the first expression of the
belief that the nerds could probably run things better, but were
disinclined to deal with such mundane challenges. Notice that when he
was forced to take the con of the Enterprise- usually because
Kirk was being held captive by the father of the native princess he'd
just boinked into delirium, and the hyper- intelligent Spock had been
rendered unconscious by a judiciously applied blunt object wielded by an
alien with the appearance and IQ of a turnip- Scotty was by far the best
strategic commander of the lot.
When you saw him in the captain's chair, you knew Kirk and Spock had
screwed up yet again- but you also knew things would turn out fine
because the Scotsman would handily defeat the enemy du jour and
would beam his sorry superiors' behinds back up to ship before the last
commercial break. And then what would happen? The episode would end with
Kirk and Spock congratulating themselves on their ingenuity while Scotty
had already disappeared back into the depths of engineering to deal with
the real responsibility of keeping the ship running.
Those of you who have saved customer presentations, demos and initial
installations from ten-thumbed marketing types know what I'm talking
about. The suits go out for a night on the town to celebrate their
technical savvy and sales skills, while you're stuck in the cheap hotel
room with a poorly stocked mini-bar that you're not permitted to access
anyway because of the cost, on the phone resolving a customer crisis
while simultaneously answering inane support questions via e-mail. And
frankly, you're happy about it. Who wants to listen to salesmen talk
But I digress.
Finally, Scotty embodied the benefits of technology and the "can do"
attitude that pervaded the 60s. Oh, he might complain mightily about
some absurd demand being placed upon him: what geek isn't conservative
when it comes to maintaining stable environments for critical systems?
But he believed, as did his real-world counterpart Gene Krantz, that
"Failure is not an option." It's the unspoken challenge that motivates
those of us for whom Scotty is the ultimate role model.
Montgomery Scott, the fictional character, will continue to perform
engineering miracles indefinitely on film, video, DVD, and media yet to
be devised. For that, we are grateful. But I sincerely mourn the passing
of James Montgomery Doohan- ironically, on the 36th anniversary of the
first manned moon landing- who made Scotty the cultural icon he became.
The word is given, Mr. Scott. Warp speed.
James (Jimmy) Doohan,
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